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Last updated at 19:22 GMT, Tuesday, 09 November 2010

Issue

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John Ayto discusses a modern use of the word 'issue'.

A worried looking man

Issue

When we have to talk about something that may be going wrong, where there's some trouble brewing, or something that might disturb or upset people, we may feel we have to choose our words carefully. We don't want to add fuel to the flames.

You might think that 'problem' was quite an innocuous word to use in such situations. But recently, it seems, people have begun to find it a little too negative, overstressing the bad side of things. They've been looking for an alternative way to say 'problem'.

Now, where there are matters that need to be addressed, they're often referred to as 'issues'. Such matters are often difficult. And so people have started to use 'issue' to mean 'problem'.

You need to be careful with it, though. It's not a simple one-for-one substitution. You wouldn't generally talk about 'solving an issue', and you certainly can't say 'no issue'.

But you find it in such contexts as 'That's not an issue', or 'Do you have issues with that?', or 'the issues surrounding nuclear waste management'.

And of course, if something's a terrible disaster, then 'problem' comes into its own as a calming word: when the spacecraft Apollo 13 broke down on its way to the Moon in 1970, the crew coolly radioed back to Earth 'Houston, we have a problem'.

About John Ayto

John Ayto

John Ayto is a lexicographer and a writer on words and language. He began his dictionary career as one of the editors of the first edition of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, and over the past twenty years he has produced a range of his own books on the history and use of words, including the Bloomsbury Dictionary of Word Origins, the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang and Twentieth-Century Words, a survey of the new words that came into the English language during the twentieth century. He edited the 17th edition of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, and he has broadcast extensively on lexical matters.